Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 (1938) [32:48]
Symphony No. 12 in D minor, ‘The Year 1917’, Op. 112 (1961)* [34:50]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 28-29 July and *23-24 June, 2010, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
NAXOS 8.572658 [69:38]
This latest instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich symphony cycle features one of his most intriguing works – the Sixth Symphony – and what is probably his weakest – the Twelfth. I’ve only recently reviewed Petrenko’s coupling of the First and Third symphonies and I was intrigued to see that these new recordings stem from the same sessions. The Sixth was recorded at the same time as the Third Symphony while the Twelfth comes from the same sessions that produced Petrenko’s fine account of the First Symphony. Not surprisingly, therefore, the same comments that I made in the previous review about the standards of playing and recorded sound apply here also.
What are we to make of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony and, in particular, its unusual structure? It consists of three movements. The first is a substantial Largo, which dominates the work. In this performance it lasts for 19:45 and so occupies well over fifty percent of the length of Petrenko’s reading. Furthermore, the Largo seems in many ways to be completely at odds with the character of the two succeeding movements. Arguably, the symphony seems unbalanced – though I hasten to add I’m not denigrating it on that account. The design was clearly deliberate and I wonder what Shostakovich intended by it.
Many passages in the Largo are cruelly exposed and will mercilessly betray any frailties of tuning, intonation or balance. The music is also a stern test of the powers of concentration of both conductor and players. Happily, if unsurprisingly, Petrenko and the RLPO surmount all its challenges. In particular I admire the way Petrenko sustains the tension. This must be particularly difficult to do in passages such as that between 12:05 and 13:39 where Shostakovich’s writing achieves something akin to musical stasis other than the flutes circling above in the chilly upper regions. Incidentally, the playing of the flautists in this episode is but one example of the fine solo playing from the RLPO’s principals; another is the doleful cor anglais solo that comes earlier (7:23-8:15). Interrupted by a few climaxes, the overriding impression left by the music is one of glacial arctic wastes and vast open spaces. It’s a profound but very enigmatic movement and in this compelling performance the listener’s attention is held, which is no small feat given the often spare, even forbidding textures and thematic material.
The following Allegro scampers along for much of the time and there are frequent examples of Shostakovich’s sardonic side. The scoring is infinitely more colourful. The performance has tremendous spirit, not least on account of the players’ excellent articulation. The RLPO displays agility and precision throughout the movement. I love the insouciant manner in which the music is delivered in the last couple of minutes, and not least the delicious pay-off at the end. There follows another quick movement, this time marked Presto. From Richard Whitehouse’s interesting note I learned that this movement was encored when Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic gave the first performance. He also tells us that the composer was particularly proud of this finale. On the surface at least this movement seems to be something of a merry dance – though with Shostakovich one can never be sure that all is as it seems – and the music seems a world away from the mood of the opening Largo. The deftness of the RLPO is admirable and the performance certainly rounds off in great style what is a very fine reading of the entire work.
Nothing that I say in the following paragraphs must be taken as a criticism of the performers. However, I’m afraid that, even though I’m a great admirer of Shostakovich’s symphonies I find it hard to discern many redeeming features in the Twelfth, a work that I first encountered back in the 1960s through Georges Prętre’s Philharmonia recording but which I’ve successfully avoided for many years. It seems to me to lack any real development in any of the four movements, which are played without a break. Worse still, the thematic material is, at best, unmemorable and, at worst, banal. It occurred to me while listening to this performance that the music might be better suited as the accompaniment to a film. For example, the second movement bears the title ‘Razliv’ after the name of a village where Lenin hid after his return to Petrograd. In some respects this is the best music in the work in that some passages are expressive – though nowhere near the quality of expression that one finds in the slow movement of the Sixth. But, for all that, nothing actually seems to happen. The music just drifts on, mainly in eerie quietness. If it were to be heard as the accompaniment to film of a poverty-stricken early twentieth century Russian village or to pictures of a bleak wintry landscape in that country then what one hears would probably enhance the visual images. However, heard in isolation, the music seems to go nowhere.
Mind you, that seems preferable to the other movements in which Shostakovich depicts respectively ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’; ‘Aurora’ (after the warship from which the Winter Palace was shelled at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution); and ‘The Dawn of Humanity’, a title which, even before one has heard the music suggests – all too correctly - a piece of Soviet Communist Party hack writing. I’m afraid that the musical invention in these movements, the finale in particular, is feeble. I know that the Seventh and Eleventh Symphonies have their detractors – though I’m not among them, even though I recognise the weak points in both works – but those two symphonies are infinitely superior to the thin gruel that Shostakovich – for whatever motives – dished out here.
Petrenko and the RLPO do their very best for the work and their commitment never wavers; nor does the excellence of the playing falter. Others may find this a less empty work than I do in which case they will find that this performance delivers full value.
Happily, as Naxos discs are relatively inexpensive one can still invest for the sake of the performance of the Sixth Symphony, which is what I recommend that readers do. I shall certainly return to Petrenko’s fine version of that symphony but I doubt I shall often listen again to the egregious Twelfth.

John Quinn
A fine version of the Sixth Symphony but, despite the excellent performance, the Twelfth remains a weak piece.

Reviews of the Petrenko Shostakovich cycle on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 and 3
Symphonies 5 and 9
Symphony 8
Symphony 10
Symphony 11 and an alternative view